Shawn Vestal: As cities grow, our country towns are hollowing

March 4, 2019

Not long ago, I visited my family in the small southern Idaho town where they live.

This town of about 2,700 people, Wendell, sits near the town of about 3,500 people where I grew up, Gooding.

Wendell and Gooding are towns that rely on agriculture. They are both in Gooding County, one of the places at the center of a boom in massive dairy operations that has changed the nature of the communities.

Gooding County is also shrinking. You can see it in the empty storefronts, the shuttered movie theaters. You can see it in the rusting tractors and sheds. You can sense the economic struggles of the residents. And you can see it in the numbers: Fewer people live there.

From 2010 to 2017, Gooding County’s population dropped by 2.2 percent, census figures show. Nearby Twin Falls County – a metropolis by comparison – grew by 10 percent, slightly ahead of the state average.

Our bigger places are growing. Our smaller places are shrinking.

This is not just the story of my hometown. It’s the story of the nation.

In Spokane County, we recently passed a milestone in population – more than a half-million souls now live, work, eat, sleep and earn here. We crossed that threshold after years of steady, unspectacular growth.

That follows a similar pattern statewide: Between 2010 and 2018, Washington’s population grew by 10.45 percent, according to recent figures from the Office of Financial Management. Spokane County’s growth was almost 8 percent.

The state growth rate, obviously, ranges from King County highs (13.4 percent) to Columbia County lows (1.8 percent), but every county in Washington state grew over the past eight years but one: Garfield.

The state’s smallest county got a little smaller.

Fifty-six fewer people live there now than eight years ago, according to OFM figures.

It’s the only place in Washington that shrank over that time period, but it’s not an outlier. Rural counties across the state mostly showed anemic growth.

That is not just the story of Washington state. It’s the story of the nation.

The hollowing out of country towns has been a longtime trend in America – any of us who spend any time in the small towns across the West have seen it with our own eyes.

But the pace of this change is accelerating. Almost all of our smallest places – the rural towns of America – are shrinking or flatlining, and the overall rural population is shrinking for the first time in the country’s history.

“The number of people living in rural (nonmetro) counties declined by nearly 200,000 between 2010 and 2016, the first recorded period of rural population decline,” according to the USDA’s Rural America at a Glance 2017, its most recent report.

Not all rural counties shrank, of course. But most of them did – 1,351 rural counties lost population between 2010 and 2016, also a historic high. (Note: There are several population comparisons I’m citing here, and each relies on a different final year, comparing 2010 to 2016, 2017 and 2018, respectively. The comparisons are not exact, but reflect the same general period of time.)

Fewer than 500 rural counties grew at below the average growth of 5 percent; just 138 grew at or above the average. Those tended to be recreation-oriented places, or volatile gas-and-oil boomtowns.

In Wendell, where I visited, the economy has been changed dramatically by an influx of enormous dairy farms and the arrival of large numbers of Hispanic people.

A local couple have taken to driving around with a large truck, hauling away people’s unused stuff. Once a week, I’m told, they hold a kind of free garage sale – just plopping the items out in an empty lot – and anyone can come and take whatever they want.

It was a sign of neighborly people helping each other out. It was also a sign of desperate people living in an economy that you might not suspect was part of the First World.

I don’t say that to insult the town or those people. They are impoverished, and they need help, and they are finding ways to help each other.

But when I think of those folks hauling off a broken trampoline or a bike with one wheel, I have a sense that is akin to spending time around the people who live in our homeless shelters here: that they are caught in the gears of inextricable change that is larger than they are, for which any immediate solution seems hard to imagine, as tied up as they are in vast political and economic forces.

I bring nothing in the way of a solution to this discussion. I am frankly wary of anyone who believes there is one, and especially of anyone who wants to cynically leverage our nostalgia for small-town America to sell political ideas that actually deepen the crisis.

I find this evolution saddening. I also find it easy to understand, unfortunately.

To explain why, I don’t need to point out Garfield County, or Gooding County, or Wendell, Idaho. I just need to point to my own family, a big Mormon brood that spent all of its formative years in Gooding County.

None of us but our parents lives there anymore. We’ve all moved away to bigger places in the region: Twin Falls, Boise, Spokane, Denver, Phoenix. We all have jobs that we simply could not do in our hometown.

We come back to visit. And then – again, always – we leave.